Images by Bogaerts, Rob / Anefo National Archives and used under the terms of a Creative Commons license Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Netherlands.
Chapter Four: Meet the Players
Marshall walked out through the big front doors, down the steps and along the side of the building. He found a back alley, separated from the vast golf course lawns by a tall row of hedges. There, playing dominoes in the dark was a group of stern, fat men. Marshall walked up tentatively.
“Sabria?” he inquired.
One of the figures looked up from the tiles and Marshall found him to be a rather solid-looking woman.
“Yes,” she said. “You must be the boy Frank has sent.”
She stood up from the game, spoke a few words of stern Spanish to the men and grabbed Marshall by the arm.
“It is better that we leave now, it is a long drive. You took many hours to find me.”
She guided Marshall further down the alley and to a small parking lot behind the clubhouse. They stopped beside a dusty and beaten up Lincoln Continental. In the dark, its exact color was not discernable.
“This is my machine,” she said. “You get in on that side.”
Sabria ignited the old car’s huge, struggling engine and pulled slowly out of the lot. She drove, without speaking, steadily past the golf club and onto a side street hemmed in by trees. Marshall noticed again how the green canvas of the island was broken repeatedly by cracking greys. In a few minutes, the small road led them to a larger one and he could make out the bright lights of Havana. The road made a large curve around the south of the city and Sabria loped them around the edge and eventually onto a dark and empty freeway that put the twinkling lights firmly in the car’s rear window. Marshall looked over his shoulder and watched them fade away.
“Where are we going?” Marshall spoke loudly, nearly shouting over the laboring engine’s roar. “I thought the player was in Havana.”
“Oh no, he plays there sometimes for large tournaments. But he is young. He plays still at home.”
“So where is home then?”
“He is a neighborhood boy in my city of Cienfuegos. We will spend the night there and tomorrow, we will see him play.”
The highway remained dark and empty, winding through the looming jungle on both sides. The car’s headlights barely threw light on the road ahead but Sabria’s figure remained stoic and unconcerned in the driver’s seat. For a long time they did not speak. Sabria focused on navigating the cumbersome craft as it sailed forward while Marshall explored the new, deep burn of the calling he had found. He could no longer turn the glittering prospect of fame over in his mind, relishing in it like a shiny jackpot token. He now had to stoke the embers that guided him and he was fascinated and pleased by their dependence on his constant breath. Using her own gifts of perception, Sabria could sense that he was motivated not by a quick payoff but by a feeling that would be deep inside him always, based on a true passion and the noble pursuit of it, and though he was young and did not understand how to care for it properly, she knew that it burned evenly and strong and might be sustained in the proper way.
“It is not much further now,” she said.
Marshall snapped away from his thoughts and back into the car.
“Oh, that’s okay. Thanks for the ride. I guess I haven’t thanked you for any of this yet.”
“I do not do it for you,” she said, sitting still in the dark and drifting the wheel slowly to the left and right to keep the big car steady along the road. “I do it for la pelota, the game. I was not born to play, I was born to watch and support and have helped many realize their dreams. The player we are going to see, Ernesto Abasolo-Alvarez, is one that must make it to the United States. You will know when you see and if you have the proper intentions, you may be the one to get him there.”
This did seem mysterious and unnerving to Marshall, but he had a sense of what she was talking about since he had decided to move forward through the park. In any case, she seemed to be taking him to see the player and that was good enough. The two remained silent as they drove past a quiet cluster of industrial parks jutting from the dark jungle along the road. Sabria turned off of the freeway and Marshall could make out faint lights blinking in the small city ahead. They cut directly into its heart, down a large and cracked street and made a sharp turn onto a smaller one somewhere deep in the center. The loud rumbling engine disturbed an otherwise silent row of cramped ramshackle homes. Sabria stopped in front of one, the brakes squealed sharply and she killed the engine.
“My home,” she said. “We will sleep here tonight and tomorrow, watch the baseball.”
Marshall followed her inside. In the low light he could finally make out her appearance, but it seemed almost as plain and nondescript as it had in the darkness. Sabria was small and squarely built, with short, black hair that dropped sharply from her head and was cut parallel with her shoulders, like a measured pour of dark ink. She had thick eyebrows, deep, dark, observing eyes and strong features. She breathed heavily, Marshall could tell she had difficulty walking around. She looked much like the inside and outside of her house, old and worn down, simple, and solid. She reminded him of Earth.
Her home had two rooms, a living space and a bedroom, with an outdoor courtyard and kitchen. She made a pallet for Marshall in the main room. When he asked for the bathroom, she pointed through the backdoor where he found an outdoor nozzle for water, a basin and an outhouse. He used these and found the door to Sabria’s bedroom closed when he returned. He laid down on the pallet and fell asleep instantly, not thinking about the player, about what Sabria had said in the car, about his new feeling, or about his fear of being alone there. He tended the inner flame without this thinking and it burned steadily while he slept.
Marshall woke from a deep sleep to a gentle prodding from Sabria’s foot.
“Come on, wake up,” she said. “You have slept late. We should be going to the stadium.”
Marshall stood up off the pallet and fished a new shirt out of his backpack. He carried it outside, washed his hair and face in cold water from the nozzle. It was slow going down the street as Sabria hobbled along. Marshall rubbed his eyes and adjusted to the sunlight. It was approaching mid-afternoon and the sun bared down through an empty sky, casting harshly on the pavement. Sabria showed Marshall where to buy a strong espresso with sugar and a ham sandwich at a stand on the way. The two traveled south and Sabria asked Marshall questions about the major leagues, though she seemed more of an authority on its players and history than he was. Eventually, they made it to a sparingly appointed baseball stadium and found a locals-only crowd milling about, selling and buying tickets, laughing and singing. They circled around to a side entrance. Sabria was breathing heavily from the walk, limping with noticeable difficulty but not sweating a drop. She spoke quickly in Spanish with a gate attendant, made a joke that involved pointing at Marshall, and the two were welcomed inside. Sabria had timed their walk perfectly and as they found their seats, the first row along the first base line, the game was about to start.
Granted, the stadium wasn’t huge to begin with, but it very clearly shrank when Ernesto Abasolo-Alvarez came up to bat. He got into his stance, holding the bat over his shoulder like a battle club, biceps tense, uniform stretched across his chest near to bursting. He was easily the largest player on the field and watching him stand there before the pitch, Marshall’s vision was focused and zoomed in. The slugger was in clear definition, the silence of his single-minded focus was all that Marshall could hear, with the bright afternoon and the instruments and cheers from the stands blurring into the background. The ball came lofting in slow motion towards the plate but it was clear what would happen before the pitch was ever fired. Ernesto stepped forward and swung, legs and arms working with natural symbiosis, Marshall could see the ball wrap itself around the bat as the moment of contact stretched improbably, and the ball hurtled out of the park in fast forward as time caught up with itself. First pitch, home run. There were cheers and horns, a self-satisfied smile and trot around the bases from Ernesto, accepted dejection from the pitcher and celebratory, spastic Spanish over the loudspeaker. This was what Marshall had come for and he was relieved to see it was real and playing out in front of him.
After that first at bat, Ernesto’s status in Marshall’s mind was solidified, but for good measure he saved a run by leaping well above the outfield wall and snatching the ball, stole home on an errant throw and fired a ball from left field to first like a heat-seeking missile to catch the runner. Finding a hit each time he stepped up to the plate, he had carried his team to a comfortable lead going into the top of the ninth inning.
As their closing pitcher shuffled to the mound, the band was begrudgingly struck and played the opening bars of an unenthusiastic timba. The pitcher, slowly ... lazily ... reached his spot and took a few warmup throws. Marshall felt a certain tension surrounding his presence as he had with Ernesto’s, but this was different. The pitcher’s self-assured movements and smirking grin weren’t visible from the seats, but Marshall felt them as a general aura of smugness resonating from the mound. The pitcher’s throwing motion seemed deliberate and clear from the stands. It was easy to follow the ball as it travelled to the plate not because of its preternatural destiny towards success, but because it limped and struggled as a sacrificial lamb towards the alter. In a slurry that seemed to happen all at once, he offered up hit after hit. The lead was quickly abandoned and Ernesto sprinted all over the outfield collecting the hits and delivering them to teammates, eventually retiring the side. Following an outfield assist on a double play to end the inning, the pitcher saluted Ernesto and confidently swaggered his way back to the dugout, swinging his pitching arm and gingerly cradling the muscle of his shoulder. Several teammates offered him encouraging taps as they jogged back to lick their wounds and finish the game.
“That is Tomasito,” said Sabria. “Ernesto’s big brother.”
After a lineup of three batters that did not include Ernesto, the home team finished with a loss. As the drums and horns played the crowd to the exits, Sabria and Marshall stayed in their seats and waited for the brothers.
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